What happens to tennis when Serena and Federer go?
It was a terrific moment for tennis, drawing tons of attention to an otherwise meaningless exhibition event in a sport just starting its new season: Serena Williams and Roger Federer sharing a court for the first – only? – time.
There they were, trying to return each other’s sublime serves during a mixed doubles match, then kidding around and showering mutual admiration on each other Serena Williams Roger Federer
during a joint interview, before posing for a selfie seen ‘round the world.
A fan’s dream. A promoter’s, too. Also, potentially, a scary moment for tennis.
Williams, owner of a professional-era-record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, and Federer, owner of a men’s-record 20, are both 37 years old, both parents and both far closer to the ends of their careers than anyone with a stake in the sport would care to think about. And so the whole scene on New Year’s Day at the Hopman Cup raised a key question, one that will be a backdrop at the Australian Open when play begins in Melbourne on Monday: What will happen to tennis when these two GOATS (“Greatest of All Time”) are gone?
“I’m a little worried about it. When they’re done, it’s going to be a real loss. When Federer goes, it’s a loss, not only for individual tournaments but the tour itself. He drives so much support and fan revenue. It’s similar with Serena. They’re so well known outside of tennis. At the end of the day, I’m happy I can say I played against one of them and kind of alongside the other one,” said Sam Querrey, a former member of the top 20 who reached Wimbledon’s semifinals in 2017. “Hopefully someone can step up and take their place in terms of popularity.” That’s not all that likely. Not anytime soon, anyway. It’s become a popular parlor game to try to point to which players in their 20s now will fill the gap whenever it is that these two superstars move on.
Among the names bandied about these days are Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko among the women, and Alexander Zverev, Sefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov among the men. That group of a half-dozen owns a total of three Grand Slam titles so far (one each for the trio of women).
There are those, such as ATP Executive Chairman Chris Kermode and WTA CEO Steve Simon, who acknowledge that Federer and Williams are, as Simon put it, “very special,” but also believe tennis can survive their eventual and inevitable departures.
“Whenever we see them on the court these days, it’s something everybody should embrace and celebrate. They … raised the profile and quality of tennis,” Simon said. “If there are conversations about them retiring, I’d say that we’ll certainly miss them, but it’s also something that happens in sports: Icons retire and great new icons come up behind them.”